July 31, 2014 at 10:24AM
Andre Nemec is one of the most prolific screenwriters of the last 20 years. His TV credits include "Alias" and "Happy Town" while on the film side he's the guy behind "Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol", next week's "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" and the new "Beverly Hills Cop" movie. He discusses all of that (and more) in our interview.
Andre Nemec is a highly accomplished screenwriter whose credits include ABC Studios dramas "October Road," "Life on Mars" and "Alias" and, on the big-screen side, "Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol," the fourth installment in the multi-billion dollar film franchise starring Tom Cruise, the upcoming "Beverly Hills Cop" redo, and next Friday's "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles". In this wide-ranging interview with Box Office Insider, he sits down to discuss writing for both TV and film, his partnerships with J.J. Abrams and Josh Applebaum, and how cool it is to exchange ideas with both Tom Cruise and Eddie Murphy.
How did you get your start and how did you meet up with your writing partner Josh Applebaum?
I met Josh in the third grade. He grew up in the Bronx and I grew up in Yonkers, New York, but we went
to Riverdale Country School in the Bronx. We were friends through high school - we were the guys doing
the plays. Then, I went off to NYU and he went to USC. In my junior year of college I got a (acting)
manager and a little bit of TV work in New York. My acting manager wanted to bring me out to LA for
pilot season and three days before leaving I very randomly ran into Josh at a bar in New York. Josh, on
winter break from USC, generously offered his sophomore dorm room as a crash pad for when I arrived in
LA. Then, a couple months later, we were having a hot dog at Pink’s and came up with the idea to write a
pilot together. With pages hot from the printer, Josh and I used every connection we had - which were few
and far between - to get the script out to agents. Amazingly an agent at Endeavor, Ari Greenburg, called
and he’s been our agent ever since.
It’s so embarrassing. It was a first run syndicated series called “Fame: LA” based on the movie and TV
show “Fame”. But we got to work with a very giving Executive Producer and other writers, and they
collectively helped us kids learn the ropes of TV writing. We wrote four episodes before the show was
canceled. So then we bounced around to a different show every year for a few years until we finally got
our footing with “Alias”.
And that’s where you met J.J. Abrams? How did you end up working together?
When people ask how Josh and I made it to where we are professionally, I always use a football analogy.
It goes like this: When you’re drafted out of college to a pro team 9 times out of 10 you’re not a marquee
player when you get there. But they are going to hand you the ball. And your job is to earn positive
yardage. Now, that’s not to say you have to rip off an 87 yard burner down the sidelines on your first
play... just hold on to the ball, don’t fumble, and keep gutting out positive yardage. If you prove that you
can handle the game, they’re going to keep putting you back in. And the more they hand you the ball, the
more you learn the rhythms of the offense, the rhythms of the defense, and the better you get.
So in getting to “Alias”: It was really through connections we had cultivated during our time working on
other shows - earning positive yardage - that we got in a room with J.J. He interviewed us to come on to
the show, and I guess he liked us as we spent the next three years writing and producing that series.
And what about “October Road”?
“October Road” was a collaboration between myself, Josh, Scott Rosenberg, and Gary Fleder (director).
It was our first piece of development for ABC and a show that to this day remains very near and dear to
all our hearts. After “O-Road”, that very same team adapted the BBC series “Life On Mars” for American
TV. We were up for the task- we brought in Scott and then Gary did the pilot and we had success. It
was a 1970’s cop show with a sci-fi underbelly to it. We were very proud of the show, but it was a bit
muscular for ABC at the time which was succeeding with “Grey’s” and “Desperate Housewives”, and we
were Harvey Keitel and Michael Imperioli. Fears were always high that we would be canceled after one
season. Now on “October Road” we had a central mystery that we never got to finish because the show
was abruptly canceled. But with “Life on Mars”, when we were nearing the end of the season, we decided
to call the Network President and tell him: “If you think you’re going to cancel us, let us know so we can
wrap up the central mystery.” For the fans, we felt it was a way of saying: “Hey we got ‘fans’ and lots
more good stories to tell, so don’t you cancel us.” But he gave us the answer we actually weren’t looking
for when he said: “Yeah you’re canceled so wrap it up.” And we had that: “Oh…wait…we didn’t mean to
put you on the spot and we’re willing to give you a moment to reconsider your decision...” (hahaha!)
Yeah and it was a shame that show went away - but as that show was wrapping up we submitted a pilot for
a show called “Happy Town”. A small town murder mystery with a wonderful, kooky cast of characters.
But the tone wasn’t right for ABC at the time.
Do you think at the time it would have been better to go with a cable outlet, especially considering the fact
that you could theoretically have stretched the boundaries of the show?
I think that “Happy Town” could really have worked on a network like Showtime, AMC or FX back in the
day. I remember while we were shooting it I turned to Gary (director) and said, “This is beautiful piece
of filmmaking, but they’re never going to put this on network television”. It was dark. It was mysterious.
And we were required to homogenize it for broadcast, which left it neither here nor there. A feathered fish,
Do you think there’s an advantage that cable networks have from the standpoint that they have far fewer
projects going simultaneously and therefore can focus their attention on nurturing a series on a Showtime,
Yes, I think that having fewer titles allows these networks to take their time - and it takes time to get under
the skin of a show. I have read scripts that people have given me where I’ve had to go back and reread it
to really find the hook, the nuance, and feel the soul of the show. But when one has a stack of ten other
scripts it’s difficult to give it that kind of attention. That being said, there are great shows on network.
Look at what “24” pulled off and what “Grey’s” continues to pull off. Though they’re different than a
cable series in that with network television you’re more directly driven by ad rates. Commercial breaks.
Selling the soap to hold the viewers till the next segment. A lot of the story breaking work focused on what
am I leaving the audience with and what am I giving them when they come back. The audience has a pair
of minutes to change the channel. In premium cable they don’t give you that opportunity and I think it does
effect how you tell the story .
Let’s move to the film side. So tell me, how does “Mission: Impossible: Ghost Protocol” come about?
That was the first feature film you had done, correct?
It kinda came out of the blue. J.J. Abrams, who we worked with on “Alias”, called one day and asked if
Josh and I would be available to come meet with him and Tom Cruise to discuss writing the next “Mission
Impossible”. We went a little deer-in-the-headlights, like “...was that call for real?” Next thing we knew
we were having lunch with Tom and J.J., talking about our love of “Mission Impossible”, and kicking
around our ideas for how we could make this installment special. From there to the premiere, it was an
incredible and intense experience - but what still amazes me most is that it actually happened. I remember
when I first moved to LA, hustling for a job, the original “Mission” TV series was running endlessly on
some cable channel. I was a huge fan. And I remember saying to Josh, “we should write this as a movie”.
And he said to me, “Great idea, but Tom Cruise just bought that and he’s making the movie with Brian
DePalma and Robert Towne”. Then, fifteen years later I get a call asking if I wanted to write a “Mission
"J.J. Abrams, who we worked with on "Alias", called one day and asked if Josh (Applebaum) and I would be available to come meet with him and Tom Cruise to discuss writing the next "Mission Impossible". We went a little deer-in-the-headlights like "...was that call for real?""
So when you met at that lunch was it like “great, we’re good to go?” Or how was it left?
Amazingly, yes. The job was ours. We started putting the movie together always with the thought of “what
can we do to make this MI worth going to? What haven’t they done yet?” We started with our big tentpole
ideas. Themes. Spectacle. Set pieces. We knew we wanted to harken back to a Cold War-esq conflict.
Hear the sounds of old Russia and the feelings of danger it evokes. We knew we wanted to play a sequence
at the Kremlin - an American spy infiltrating an iconically impenetrable foreign fortress. We also knew
we wanted to go to Dubai. And we had the kooky idea we wanted to put Tom on the outside of that
And what about the supporting cast, how did you want them to figure into the movie?
We thought let’s bring this band of misfits together around Tom, who is the ultimate agent. And let’s have
him be player-coach to this band of misfits, leading them into a victory. That was the driving principle of
what we wanted to do. Tom inherits this “family”; but it’s only through his intelligence and patience and
his cunning that he’s able to pull everyone and everything together. As much as the character of Ethan
Hunt (Tom) wants to do it all on his own, he knows he can’t.
How about "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles"? Had you worked with anyone involved with that project
previously or did they just call you and Josh out of the blue?
Yes, also an incoming call. Which is to say we were not actively seeking that job. But were happy to get
involved. It is the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles after all. Off-beat and irreverent superheroes, what's not
to want to get involved with...? So, initially we were hired on to do a three week re-write of a script they
already had for the movie. But as we discussed changes both we and the studio wanted to make, it became
apparent we were all talking about a very different kind of movie than the one we were hired to re-write. As
the new story evolved, the scope of the movie grew. And with it, the budget. Affording us the opportunity
to craft big action set pieces. And really add some spectacle to a movie we always felt, at its core, was
about humor, heart, family and never taking itself too seriously.
On to “Beverly Hills Cop”. Talk about a long gestating project, how did you get involved?
Almost in exactly the same way as Mission came about. We got a phone call. Adam Goodman, President
of Paramount, dialed my partner and I. We were in Atlanta, producing “Project Almanac” (a small budget
feature due out January 30, 2015) for them. Adam called and said, “I’m going to throw a title at you. And
you tell me if you’re interested?” I really was a bit shocked and responded, “Interested? Adam, you’re
talking about my childhood!”. There were no funnier, more awesome movies, when I reflect back on when
I was a kid, than the “Beverly Hills Cop” movies.
So at this time does he say that it’s a “Beverly Hills Cop” redo, or a sequel or what?
The question was what was the take? Beverly Hills Cop is the ultimate fish out of water story. So where
do you go with it? Josh and I had an idea in the moment that we pitched Adam on the call, and he loved it.
A fish-out-of-water story about a cop following a crime back to his old hometown, and realizing - the hard
way - that it’s not quite the town he left. Josh and I fleshed it out a bit further. Went up to Eddie’s house.
Pitched him. He dug it. And as we walked out of Eddie’s, Adam turned to us and said “go write it”.
So do you think to yourself when you walk out of those meetings, “Wow, I’m good.”
(Laughter) No, in a million years, no. I always think I’m so lucky to be surrounded by good people and
I have a great partner. We love doing what we do. But it’s also a lot of work. We prep hard for those
meetings. We spend a lot of time and energy insuring that what we pitch feels right to us. When we left
that meeting, Josh and I stood by our cars for a while and mused how lucky we are. Not only did we just
meet Eddie Murphy, which is wonderful on its own - but how the universe gives us the gift of being asked
to come into these rooms and share our ideas. But it’s like I said before, the thing I always go back to: You
don’t always have to score a touchdown, just hold onto the ball and make some positive yardage.
We’ll end on that positive note. Thanks so much for the time